I found myself nose-to-nose with a ferret – in a figurative sense at least, as he stood on his hindpaws to roughly half my height. He was standing on the doorstep. Paws clasped together in earnestness. Friendly smile on his face. “Budgeron Ferret,” he said by way of introduction, “and I understand you could use my help. May I come in? And do you have tea?”
Before long he was seated comfortably at my kitchen table as I heated a kettle and found a raspberry teabag. “So you’re an author?” I echoed what he had been telling me. “A published one? How did you know I needed help with my writing?”
He petted the cats gently. They didn’t know what to make of him, but cats never turn down a good petting. His fur was a dark brown and he had the distinctive bandit-mask marking on his white face; if it hadn’t been for his unusual size, I might have run him off with a broom instead. If it hadn’t also been for the talking. “You mentioned it online,” he said as I poured the tea, and he gratefully accepted the cup and saucer. “I’ve been reading about your struggles with yourself.”
“How – how?” I asked in surprise. “My posts are locked down to friends-only –”
He flexed his whiskers amusedly. “This is the first thing that surprises you in my visit?”
“Point taken,” I replied, as I took a seat beside him with my own cup of tea. I took a sip; it was bitter. I didn’t know whether it should have been, or perhaps the teabag was old, so rarely do I use them; but if it were the latter, my guest was too polite to offer complaint. “So my trouble is that I want to write – I want to want to write – but I don’t know what to write. I’ve been through lists upon lists of story-starters and writing prompts, but none of them excite me. They bore me even before I’ve finished coming up with an idea for them.” I pushed a piece of paper across the table towards him; a list of writing prompts from the fiction writers’ group meeting I’d attended last night. I tapped one halfway down. “‘It looked like a plain old milkshake to me…‘ Let’s make the setting a diner, the characters some schoolkids, the conflict is that he has to ace his test, the milkshake gives him super-intelligence and then he has to deal with the consequences. Or maybe it makes him dumb and he learns what it really means to work for his grade. There. Bam. Ho-hum.”
“So story starters aren’t your cup of tea,” the ferret commented without judgment. I offered to top off his cup; he held up a paw. “You want more. That’s fine. Have you read up on The Hero’s Journey?”
I counted off on my fingers. “That, and Propp’s narrative structure, and Wells’s seven-point system, and Pixar’s twenty-two rules of storytelling, and the Snowflake Method. I know that to build a good story you need characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. And that you need to put your characters, plot, and setting in conflict with each other, and for the main character to be actively engaged rather than a passive spectator preferably by opening the story in medias res, and to continue to escalate the challenges to give your characters more to overcome.”
“That’s a lot of equipment to carry around in your saddlebags,” he observed. “So what have you done with it?”
“Funny you should ask.” I pulled a deck of cards from my pocket; spread them face-up on the table before him. “These are tarot cards; you’ve heard of them?” He nodded, but I proceeded anyway. “The Major Arcana. What these are, are characters. ‘The Fool.’ ‘The Magician.’ ‘The High Priestess.’ Halfway through, ‘The Hanged Man.’ ‘Death.’ And finally, ‘Judgement’ and ‘The World.’ If I take these, and lean them up against the Hero’s Journey, then suddenly I have a framework. I take the Fool,” I held up the card, “she meets these characters, one of them gets mad at her for asking questions to understand things, another one is a wooden carving and whether she thinks it’s judging her or approving her all depends on what preconceptions she has. She heeds a call to adventure, she goes through Death – which is just change, really, not necessarily physical death, though it could be – she goes through Death and Judgment and finally finds herself having attained The World. Which she politely declines, being either a fool’s nature or Buddha-nature or both –”
The ferret cut me off quietly. “‘She?’ You seem to be putting emphasis on the pronoun.”
I leaned in closer. “So I’ve always been fascinated by religion from a logical standpoint. Write what you know, right? I’m thinking that if I name her Mary, or if that’s too obvious than perhaps Magdalene or Maggie or Megs, I could add religious overtones to it – she is looking for something but she asks simple questions that others don’t. A la the Emperor’s New Clothes. And to make this not Christian-themed I would invent a religion, similar except that its holy person died by hanging so instead of crosses it has noose-shaped symbology and the noose looks like a drop of water, so there is a lot of water symbology here … what?” I realized that while I had gotten carried away, the corners of my guest’s muzzle had drooped into a slight frown.
He cleared his throat, nudged a cat away from exploring his tail. “What does she want? And what are the stakes?”
I hesitated. “I had a feeling you were going to ask that. I … don’t know. Maybe her husband died. Maybe she has a bone to pick with God because of it.” The ferret opened his mouth, but I shook my head. “And maybe what pushes her into action is … that she’s going to die too? Has a terminal disease … that somehow still allows her to actively go through the Hero’s Journey …”
I trailed off into silence. The ferret took a long sip of his tea. “Is this the kind of story you want to write,” he asked calmly, “a woman whose husband died, who is dying herself, who wants to go take it out on a diety she’s skeptical of in the first place?”
I shrugged, then shook my head no.
He considered his words for another few moments. “It sounds,” he said, petting a purring cat which had somehow ended up in his lap, “that you are trying to be A Writer. You care a great deal about creating something worth creating! And to that end, you’ve put a lot of thought into how to construct it – so much thought that all the fun seems to have been sucked out of the process. Would you say that’s accurate?” I readily nodded to him. “I know you know this already, but maybe it’ll help to hear it spoken aloud: you’re not the first person to run into this particular wall.
“I have three rules on a sign I keep above my computer,” he continued. “And they are: Have Fun! Don’t Think! Don’t Care! All I can say is that these notions were hard-won and they helped me. Maybe they can help you too.”
Conversation meandered thereafter; he remarked on the weather and the book tour for the latest children’s novel in the Budgie Ferret’s Friends series that had brought him close enough for a social call. I inquired after his wife and how her own characters were doing. “Misbehaving,” he replied with a gleam to his eye. But finally the morning was late and the tea was gone and it was time for him to be on his way. I helped to lift a cat from his lap – this was the other cat (they were taking turns), who was now somewhat perplexed at the turnabout of having been slightly shed on by ferret fur. I had no pity.
But as I saw Mr. Ferret to the door, I still had something to ask. “I’m glad you found me at home today – most days I would have been at the office. I had set the day aside for creative writing, in fact, to fight with this story I’ve been trying to make happen, and my goal was to sit down and post fifteen hundred words as proof that I’d done it. Thank you for showing me that there are other ways to go about it, but that still leaves me with an unfulfilled self-imposed challenge and my original question still lacking an answer. What do I want to write?”
“I’ve seen you wrestle with matters like this before by hashing them out between two characters,” he said. “Perhaps that’s a start, a way to help you find your own voice again?”
I pursed my lips and leveled a skeptical look at him. “If I can’t even follow a formula to come up with a story outline,” I told him, “I really think that dashing off a piece of Socratic dialogue is beyond me, off the cuff like that. I’m just not good at it.”